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Band of misfits for Duke men's basketball develops into productive bench

<p>After being relegated to the bench, Trevon Duval has made the most of his new role and dished out six assists in the second half of Duke’s comeback win Saturday.</p>

After being relegated to the bench, Trevon Duval has made the most of his new role and dished out six assists in the second half of Duke’s comeback win Saturday.

Trevon Duval seems out of place in a band of misfits. 

After slicing up high schoolers and making college players look like high schoolers in his first few college games, it seemed like business as usual for the nation’s top point guard recruit. All he had ever known was dominance. 

But now, he finds himself coming off the bench—albeit in a crucial sixth-man role—for a team with national championship aspirations. He’s part of a band of misfits on Duke’s bench. That includes Marques Bolden, a former five-star recruit who has taken his time to live up to expectations, and scrawny Alex O’Connell, always underestimated for his size. And even Jack White, who in late January had the crowd chanting his name because he scored five points. 

How did Duval wind up there? His affinity for the 3-pointer is like that for the one ex that you keep going back to, no matter how much you know you shouldn’t. His vices of coughing up the ball and whiffing on steal attempts didn’t help, either. 

But for all their perceived flaws, the Blue Devil bench has become a vital part of a team chock full of blue-chip recruits. Duval helped key Duke’s comeback win against North Carolina Saturday, Bolden has become a force on the boards and O’Connell has been a human energy drink at times. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has been known to be hesitant to dip more than one or two players into his bench over the years, but not of late. 

With senior Grayson Allen manning the ship at point guard in place of Duval, Duke has won six of its last seven games while relying more heavily on its reserves. Before a Feb. 11th win at Georgia Tech, Krzyzewski had used the same starting five all season long.

In the Blue Devils’ last two games, Krzyzewski has kept Duval on the bench, with three bigs starting alongside Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen—Javin DeLaurier, Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr.. While Duval has come off the bench, he hasn’t failed to make a splash when he got a chance to play. 

Despite struggling from long range all season, Duval's 3-pointer and assist to Bagley for a dunk in the second half against North Carolina Saturday helped Duke climb out of a deep hole. Before the game was decided, Duval had a hand in all of Duke's last six buckets to help seal the deal. 

“I’m just focusing on what I can do to help the team win no matter what position I’m put in, no matter what’s going on,” Duval said after the game. “My mindset was to come in and try to affect the game in whatever way I needed to affect it, whether that’s getting offensive rebounds, hooking guys up, finding open shooters, things like that.”

In the past seven games with Duval in and out of the lineup, the Blue Devils' offense certainly hasn’t been the well-oiled machine it once was. It was dead in the water in the first half against the Tar Heels and disappeared late against Virginia Tech Feb. 26, and Duval was a part of that against the Hokies.

He didn’t make an impact in crunch time and missed a late pair of late free throws that would have extended Duke's one-point lead. The freshman also had three turnovers.

“We slowed the ball up, so that’s why we’re not scoring as much. We felt like we had mismatches inside, but we had too many turnovers trying to do that,” Allen said that night. “The perimeter guys have to make better passes, myself included. Too many turnovers, that was really it.”

If the Blue Devils want their offense to get on track, Duval will likely have to be part of that resurgence, whether off the bench or in the starting lineup. 

The “Slim Reaper” quietly deadly

Duke quietly has one of its most deadly offensive weapons coming off the bench. He might not seem the most imposing, but he can bring it. Especially now that he can see when he plays. 

At the beginning of the year, O’Connell’s flowing locks got in his eyes when he was shooting—a major distraction, he says. A buzzcut has helped things—he doesn’t have to brush back his hair like Luke Kennard did last year. 

“It was too long and it was in my face. When I shot it, it was bothering me,” O’Connell said. “I didn’t want the whole Luke thing. It was distracting.”

Listed at 6-foot-6 and 171 pounds—which might be a stretch—the lanky guard, affectionately dubbed the “Slim Reaper” by Duke fans,  has gotten used to being underestimated due to his lack of size. 

But it hasn’t brought him down—he has the highest offensive rating among rotation players. 

“Now that I’ve shown that I can make an impact despite not being as strong as other guys is a good thing,” O’Connell said. 

A lights-out 3-point shooter, the freshman has seen his minutes fluctuate a lot as of late. But when he’s in the game, he has been the team’s best perimeter shooter. 

O'Connell has been lightning in a bottle for the Blue Devils when they needed a boost at times this year. With Allen fouled out against Texas in November, he played 29 minutes on a big stage at the PK80 Invitational. 

“Just for me to be able to be on the court and experience that, whether I was scoring or not, that was a really big part of my development to help me get a feel for what big-time college games are going to be like,” O’Connell said. “When it comes tournament time, that was a really good learning experience for me.”

In a recruiting class stacked with five-star recruits, it was easy for many to overlook O’Connell, which he said has left a chip on his shoulder. But he felt that he would eventually be able to make an impact. 

“I did know that I was probably going to get overlooked, but I figured if I came here and was myself and brought the energy that I knew I could bring, I figured I would stand out eventually,” O’Connell said. “They can only play five guys and you have to settle eventually. They have to find somebody who can do that stuff...I knew I was going to have to be able to make an impact, but I didn’t think that I was going to be able to make such an impact right away. ”

O'Connell's time on the floor has been sporadic as of late, but he played 14 minutes against North Carolina Saturday and knocked down a triple—he also added 11 points in 18 minutes in Duke's Feb. 8 loss to the Tar Heels. 

Early on in conference play, O’Connell struggled to get ready to play against Boston College and N.C. State, he said, relegating him to the bench for nearly the entire game.

“I wasn’t 100 percent ready to play. That isn’t a good look on any player, so [Krzyzewski] pulled me,” O’Connell said. “He probably just didn’t think I was ready to come back in, and I completely understand that. Now I know that if I don’t come in ready, I probably won’t go back in.”

Bolden making a resurgence

Added late in the recruiting process, Bolden was supposed to be the final piece of a championship contender when he came to Durham. But sullied by injuries, he flopped in his freshman season. 

He wasn't able to play until December, and even once he got on the court, he was slow-footed, and hardly played, if at all, in big games down the stretch. 

But Bolden has logged double-digit minutes in every game after missing nearly all of January with a knee injury this season. The towering center has played an important role in spelling DeLaurier and even Carter or Bagley if needed, becoming one of the team's best rebounders. He even received one ACC Sixth Man of the Year vote at the end of the regular season.

The former blue-chip recruit showed grit in a Feb. 21 win against Louisville, playing 16 minutes with a fractured nose—and no mask. He scored eight points, grabbed five rebounds and swatted a shot, now a typical game off the bench for Bolden.  

The 6-foot-11 big man understands that he is a crucial part of the 2-3 zone under the basket—and is confident that Duke’s surging defense can stop anyone. 

“We’re the eyes of the zone and we see everything, so talking out screens and people moving, and that’s really it,” Bolden said after the win against the Cardinals. “With us talking, it helps also with the movement of all the other four guys on the court, too, so with communicating, we feel like we defend anybody.”

Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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